As a former federal and provincial government environmental regulator and now as a consulting environmental engineer I read with interest John Liston’s commentary of Canada in The Gazette on May 25 on the new federal Impact Assessment Act (IAC). I found his commentary to be insightful and, with three exceptions, to be reasonable and balanced in terms of federal and provincial environmental roles and responsibilities.
The first exception is that almost all projects that are subject to IAC (there can be some minor debate on this) are not “local works or undertakings” and are definitely not “minor” as the commentary implied. IAC’s focus is on major projects with significant potential impacts, some of which transcend Alberta’s borders and are therefore of national interest.
The second exception is how the concept of “public interest” is portrayed. Both the federal and provincial jurisdictions apply public interest criteria in their decision making. The commentary notes that if a federal government review of a project finds it is not in the public interest it can reject the project. The province has this same project decision making criteria and in this regard it is worth noting that the same Alberta Appeal Court that made the recent ruling on the IAC legislation, in a 2019 unanimous decision regarding an appeal by the Fort McKay First Nation, indicated that the Alberta Energy Regulator in an oil sands project decision took “…an unreasonably narrow view of what compromises the public interest…”. The difference between the federal and provincial application of public interest criteria is that in Alberta the public interest emphasizes economic interest, whereas at the federal level there is at least an attempt to give meaningful consideration to the environment, social, economic, and indigenous rights implications when making public interest decisions.
The third exception is with the use of “far-reaching” to describe IAC project assessments. The federal assessment is only “far-reaching” in the context of Alberta’s currently woefully inadequate environmental assessment and Indigenous consultation criteria, which is one of the reasons that many environmental and Indigenous groups strongly supported the IAC legislation.
The IAC legislation is therefore, in large part, necessary because provincial jurisdictions like Alberta are so focused on economic development that they are unable to take their responsibility for environmental, social, and Indigenous rights issues seriously. This abrogation of responsible resource management requires the passage of federal legislation like IAC, and Albertans should both welcome such legislation and chastise the provincial government for making such legislation necessary in the context of resource development projects in Alberta.
David Spink, St. Albert